Light Rail Transit Association - UK Development Group 


JULY 2001 



Built almost a quarter of a century ago and under a Government declaration of "never again", the Tyne & Wear Metro then appeared satisfied with this large investment. The services it provided not only catered for those without a car but also as an alternative for those with. Without doubt Metro had become necessary because Newcastle, and its Gateshead neighbour, had already started to run-down their local transport systems with trams being amongst the first casualties. Their feeder function, partly to the suburban electric railway at Newcastle Central, had been taken for granted and many were far from pleased when this latter service gave way to diesel operation. Without doubt though the new Metro, when it came, did breathe new life into the area because of its CBD penetration, albeit underground. Many ideas were borrowed from the Continent but without any street running a "light metro" label would have been more appropriate.


Future planning to reduce traffic congestion whilst at the same time improving pedestrian safety alongside improved mobility into the CBD is now the current topic and it would certainly do no harm for this fact sheet to take a closer look at some other options before funds are committed.

One high-tech solution, the electronically guided bus, has already been tested (2) and later rejected as unsuitable for Newcastle.

The well-publicised guided-bus transit mode appears now to have reached the peak of its perfection but is still failing to attract serious investment. Leeds is now reported to be the only place in the world still constructing kerb guided bus track. The guided bus proposals in Chester for instance are being objected to by the CPRE (Council for the Protection of Rural England) because they include a green-field park & ride site (3). Apart from a gradual erosion of the countryside, dedicated park & ride buses are being blamed for abstracting passengers away from ordinary bus services.


When built, the T&W Metro was close to a perfect fit for the Newcastle region, but the passing of a quarter of a century has changed perceptions of what a modern city really needs to attract passengers. This was recently brought home to the management when ridership figures on the Metro slumped very alarmingly. Several reasons have already been given for this but one important factor has stood out above all others, personal safety in the underground walkways. With a new tramway being proposed, if it is fed into the existing tunnels it will not only perpetuate the public's fear of crime but also mix higher speed interurban vehicles and their fewer access points with a modern urban tram system which has the technical ability to include more stopping points, especially when on surface tracks.


The Californian city of San Francisco, like Newcastle, spent very large sums of money on putting its light rail services underneath its principal city centre street, not an unreasonable move for interurban type passengers, but, far from satisfactory for local businesses that need easy shopper access. Eventually, a restored surface tram service became a regular feature and was an immediate success, so much so that major extensions were soon added. Success though does bring problems but these were difficulties associated with collecting enough rolling stock for the service. Portland, Oregon, went a stage further in 1986 by providing a light rail service into the downtown part of its conurbation. Although this was fully located on the surface, the interurban nature of the service meant a somewhat limited CBD distribution. Partly to correct this a different operator, Portland Streetcar Inc., built a completely new tram system to provide easy movement between the various popular and well-used locations (eg: hospitals) in the central area (4). This new tram system was scheduled to start operating with new Czech-built trams during July 2001 (5).

By contrast, Dallas, in Texas uncovered some old tram tracks in the tourist part of the city and restored the service as a heritage tramway. The later addition of a modern light rail system involved plans to create an integrated link with the heritage type service.

To British eyes, the provision of these additional heritage-type tramways may seem overkill, but two changes over the years have justified this additional downtown investment. One change was the earlier elimination of down-town tramways and the other was the ease with which a motorist can do all the family shopping without going anywhere near a down-town shopping centre.

Those wishing to use the fast rail service provided but still have vehicle access to a city centre on a regular basis have used a certain amount ingenuity by owning a "Fred Flintstone" type car and storing it overnight in a down-town car park adjacent to the rail station (6).


The above examples tend to demonstrate that a need exists to provide town-centre distribution services. When the Government denied Manchester its original underground PiccVic link and the lower cost METROLINK connection was substituted, the many CBD improvements came almost by default. Any visitor to Manchester cannot help noticing METROLINK with its ease of access and environmental improvements around Piccadilly Gardens (7). Just like Sheffield, new stopping places can easily be added or badly placed loading points relocated, almost impossible with underground services. Both Manchester and Sheffield have had very encouraging patronage figures whereas the T&W Metro suffered some heavy passenger losses between 1985 and 1996 (8). What is of note is the change in attitude whereby tram routes now are planned to stay on the surface with traffic going underground. Anyone driving through Basel cannot help but notice how motor traffic goes through tunnels whilst public transport including the trams remain on the surface (9).


Edmonton (Canada) has for 23 years followed a similar pattern to Newcastle by operating vehicles with many light rail characteristics, partly in subway and partly on fully segregated tracks. Another similarity is the proposal in Edmonton to construct future lines on the surface. The method used to bring the line to the surface from a depth of 23m is to build two 6m-diameter tunnels with a gradient of 6% (10).


This could follow the lead set by several German cities by using electrified main-line tracks to provide a suburban service and when close to the CBD to make use of tram tracks. This concept, developed by Karlsruhe, has been a spectacular success.


Street operation is at the low cost end of the light rail spectrum although when a space problem arises, some heavy civil engineering can be justified for a short length. This problem arose when the Eccles line was built in Manchester. This example could be of help in Newcastle as planning proceeds for tramway operation.


  1. TRAMWAYS & URBAN TRANSIT - June 2001.
  2. LOCAL TRANSPORT TODAY - 14th March 1996.
  3. LOCAL TRANSPORT TODAY - 3rd February 2000.
  5. TRAMWAYS & URBAN TRANSIT - June 2001.
  6. Overnight cars can be found at any big destination LOS ANGELES TIMES - 6th May 2001.
  7. Surface trams have a strong marketing effect in favour of public transport - LIGHT RAIL & COMPLEMENTARY MEASURES - page 18 - Carmen Haus-Klau.
  8. Patronage fell from 52m in 1985 to 35m in 1996 - LIGHT RAIL & MODERN TRAMWAY - December 1997.
  9. Outside the railway station in Saarbrücken, motor vehicle traffic was put in tunnels and the tram system was built at street level. LIGHT RAIL & COMPLEMENTARY MEASURES - page 84.- Carmen Haus-Klau.
  10. Larry J McLachlan - Director, Light Rail Edmonton Transit RAILWAY GAZETTE INTERNATIONAL - METRO REPORT 2001.

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